Collier: Power play success like winning the lottery

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They don't announce so boisterously and persistently that the Penguins are on the Powerball power play for nothing, ya know. In fact, it ought to be painfully obvious why they call it that by this point.

You have a better chance of hitting the Powerball than seeing a goal.

OK, full disclosure:

Chances of hitting the Powerball -- 1 in 195,249,054 (you really have an equal chance of belching a live kitten).

Chances the Penguins will score on the power play -- slightly better than that, certainly, but not by nearly enough.

As of midnight Wednesday, the Penguins had avoided the insertion of any puck in any net on 27 of 28 power plays dating back dangerously close to Valentine's Day, but none was perhaps more frustrating than the one that unfolded near the end of the second period Tuesday night.

Unless it was the one that unfolded halfway through the first period, when five Penguins skated against three Buffalo Sabres for 84 seconds and managed to produce nothing more threatening that a Kris Letang shot that hit Sabres goalie Ryan Miller square in the big glove covering his navel.

"Yeah that 5-on-3 we'd like to have back for sure," said center Jordan Staal, who skated nearly three minutes of power-play time without figuring much out. "The power play is still struggling. There are a lot of new guys, a lot of new faces, and Kovy is new, so that's going to take some getting used to."

Alex Kovalev, playing his first game in Pittsburgh since the deadline trade that brought him back to where he once skated with Mario Lemieux, logged as much power-play time as Staal without recording a shot. Still, he looked as dangerous as anyone out there.

"He's definitely a different kind of player; he's so talented," Staal said. "He draws a lot of players to him. He's definitely going to be a force for us. We've got to be able to get him the puck when he's open."

One might have thought that the Penguins' chances of rectifying this chronic situation had swollen significantly with the arrival of the Sabres, who, for all their recent competence, were still buried in the bottom half of the NHL when it comes to the desperate art of penalty-killing.

They were 20th, technically, but the Penguins made them look like the game's preeminent puck-clearing clinicians.

In that second period, minutes after the Penguins took a 2-1 lead on the first goal by Zbynek Michalek since about the time Zbigniew Brzezinski last made a news cycle, the Penguins started the most confounding and yet perhaps the most promising power play in a couple of weeks.

Maybe it was the re-emergence of Chris Kunitz from the Planet of Undisclosed Injuries that made the power play look different somehow. If nothing else, Kunitz at least turned up in the slot right in front of Miller to whack-whack-whack at it at one point. Miller said no-no-and-no, but Kunitz had at least made his point to his brothers in white.

Maybe we should shoot it.

When Kunitz's final attempt caromed wildly to Miller's right, Mark Letestu came upon the biscuit and a yawning net opening simultaneously. But he couldn't settle the puck enough to get a decent shot.

At least, the Penguins generated four shots in those two minutes, and four more on a third-period power play that left them 0 for 7 on the night and 1 for their past 28. When you get seven power plays, even when all of them fail, it has a wearying impact on the other guys.

"We did a great job on the power play, but the point is, too many of our offensive players sat on the bench for too long," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "I thought our battle was good, killing the shot lanes and blocking shot. Did a great job, but had too many players sitting out."

When Letestu tipped in a third-period goal to make it 3-1, it was pretty clear the Sabres were going to realize they would have to lose eventually under new owner Terry Pegula, who was introduced as the fourth owner of the Sabres Feb. 22. Since then, the hockey club was 5-0-2, a timely performance spike that boosted it into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

At his introductory news conference, Pegula, the Pennsylvania native, vowed the Sabres would never lack for cash during his reign. He and his wife Kim had already pledged $88 million to Penn State to upgrade its hockey program. Last July, he sold his company to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion.

So, at least the Sabres know what it's like to hit the Powerball.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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